New Mexico Gets A Commission for the Blind

by Fred Schroeder

Braille Monitor

July, 1986

In describing our movement, we have often said, "The future is ours." Through these words we have expressed our determination to hold fast to our goals and true to our convictions with the promise of shaping a future where the blind will be able to live lives of full equality as first-class citizens. February 18, 1986, represents a day of triumph for blind people throughout New Mexico. For on that day the legislature of the state of New Mexico created a commission for the blind to administer rehabilitation programs throughout the state. The new agency will be administered by a three-member board of commissioners. The commissioners will be appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate to serve staggered terms of six years each. The new law requires that at lease one of the commissioners be a blind person. The Commission will administer rehabilitation counseling and home teaching services, low vision clinic, work activities and workshop, orientation center, and vending program.

A commission for the blind in New Mexico has been a dream of Federation is ts for many years. In 1971 a bill was introduced in the New Mexico legislature to move Services for the Blind from the Welfare Department and transfer it to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation under the Department of Education. Federationists opposed the move, asking instead for the establishment of a commission for the blind. Although the effort to block the transfer was unsuccessful, Federationists kept up the push for a separate agency for the blind.

In 1975 the first commission for the blind bill was introduced. During the session the bill suffered a series of crippling amendments and was eventually vetoed by Governor Jerry Apodaca, who believed that large umbrella agencies increased efficiency in government.

In 1979 Federationists again turned to the legislature for help. Once more our efforts met with resistance, and the commission for the blind bill went down in defeat. As time went by, our belief in the need for a separate agency for the blind did not wane but in fact grew stronger.

In 1985 Federationists from throughout New Mexico began contacting their legislators once again appealing for the establishment of an agency that could offer blind people the training and services necessary for real integration into society.

In 1985 the effectiveness of the existing agency had reached an all-time low. Responsiveness had been replaced by an emphasis on cost effectiveness. Clients were under an assembly line model of rehabilitation with no recognition of the need for development of positive attitudes toward blindness. As blind people, we understand that training without self-confidence represents only the shadow of integration and can never lead to full participation. Through the development of a positive attitude toward blindness, one that stresses an image of the blind as able to compete on terms of equality, the blind can realize the promise and not just the hope of first-class status.

During the 1985 session New Mexico legislators heard our concerns and joined with us in our efforts to establish a separate agency for the blind. The support was there, the top of the ladder just one rung away. The only obstacle was time. On the last day of the legislative session the commission for the blind bill was up for final passage. The morning's schedule of business was long, and as the minutes ticked by, hope slipped away as it became clear that the House would never get far enough through the agenda to consider the commission for the blind bill.

To come so close only to face disappointment is a devastating experience. Nevertheless, we of the Federation are not easily discouraged nor easily turned away. Our beliefs run deep and our convictions strong. Rather than give up in disappointment we redoubled our efforts and began preparing for the next legislative session.

In January, 1986, we were ready for action. We secured the support of the Governor and began talking with the legislature to stress the importance of a commission for the blind in our state. Since this session would only be thirty days long, we knew we would have to move fast, and move fast we did. On Tuesday evening, February 18, just a day and a half before the close of the session, we once again sat in the House gallary awaiting final passage of the commission for the blind bill, and this time we were not disappointed. Fifteen years had gone by since the days when we opposed the transfer of Services for the Blind to the Department of Education. A decade and a half of planning, a decade and a half of commitment, a decade and a half of struggle finally came together in the passage of a bill which means much more than an administrative reorganization of state government, much more than a reallocation of resources and programs.

To the blind the establishment of a commission for the blind represents a hope for the future and a hope of a future--a future where blind people can have jobs, raise families, and in every way be fully participating members of society. Our National President, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, has told us that in our struggle we often lose skirmishes; we sometimes lose battles; but we never lose wars--for the war is never over until we prevail. Now for the first time, the blind of New Mexico will have a voice in shaping and guiding the programs and services established for our benefit. Rehabilitation services will now be administered by an agency which has as its sole responsibility the provision of programs for the blind. No longer will blind services be merely a small part of a giant state agency concerned with everything from the rehabilitation of other handicapped groups to the running of the state's public schools. In short, no longer will blind services simply be a minor concern of a large bureaucracy but instead will be the sole concern of a small state agency.

The establishment of a commission for the blind in New Mexico is a result of the long-term concerted efforts of the blind of the state. For years we have been making our voices heard in the legislature through letters, telephone calls, and through testimony at public hearings.

The job of educating the legislature represents a challenge and commitment difficult fully to appreciate. Throughout the most recent legislative session, Joe Cordova and Pauline Gomez worked tirelessly meeting with legislators and discussing our concerns. Joe made countless trips to Santa Fe from Albuquerque to make sure that the commission for the blind bill did not get bogged down in the legislative process. At the drop of a hat and often with only a few hours notice Federationists from across the state rushed to Santa Fe--crowding hearing rooms to make sure that the legislature understood the importance of a commission for the blind to the blind of the state. We the blind want to be self-supporting. To accomplish this end, we must have good training to provide us the skills necessary for successful employment. The new Commission for the Blind promises to make this goal a reality.

On Wednesday, March 5, 1986, Governor Tony Anaya signed into law Senate Finance Substitute for SB-82, thereby bringing to pass a long awaited dream. We owe a debt of gratitude to Governor Anaya for placing the commission for the blind bill on his call and to Senator Manny Aragon for introducing the bill in the Senate. We also owe a debt of gratitude to Representative George Galanis for sponsoring the bill in the House and to the entire New Mexico legislature for bringing to pass this vitally important reform. We the blind have held true to our convictions and fast to our determination. The future is ours, and together we have made it all come true.